Taking botany research to galactic heights

Plant research is reaching unforeseen realms and UW-Madison is at the forefront. This research is becoming more important than ever. Plants feed populations. Plants are used as medicines. The human race depends on plants for survival and health and understanding them can be quite tricky. Learning more about how plants do what they do is incredibly important research.

According to an article published in the American Journal of Botany by Gilroy, stress during plant growth is caused by many different factors. Touching a plant can alter its growth, but also wind and gravity.

Dr. Simon GIlroy, a researcher and professor of Botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his team are particularly interested in how plants will grow in altered gravity. The effect of plant growth in space.

However, according to Gilroy, simply wondering how a plant will grow in space is not good science. The research team begins by looking at how a plant actually grows. They look for ways to manipulate a plant while it’s growing to see what it does and how its growth changes. This will help them better understand how it all works together. One of these tests includes growing plants without gravity.

That’s where the space part comes in.

There is no way to eliminate gravity on earth. “If you could work out how to get rid of gravity, you would be a bazillionaire,” said Gilroy, “anti-gravity doesn’t exist.”

“If you could work out how to get rid of gravity, you would be a bazillionaire,”

In the lab back home at UW-Madison the team researches the simple question, “How do plants grow?” They perform various experiments such as turning a plant on its side to see how that affects its growth. The team looks deep into the plant at a cellular level to truly understand what is going on.

The hypotheses that they develop here on earth about how plants grow, help develop the hypotheses they test in space. Gilroy said about 90% of the lab is experiments here on earth. It is hard to get grant money to launch a rocket without lots of background research.

Gilroy’s experiments require specialized hardware and machinery. They take advantage of the brilliant engineering undergraduates in the introductory engineering class. The research team comes in as a client to help undergraduate engineers understand the business side of the field. The engineering students then develop a prototype for the Gilroy lab.

If it was not for the space flight research, they would not need these specialized machines. The space missions give these undergraduate engineering students a unique opportunity.

NASA itself is an acronym for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, so there is no doubt the organization likes to abbreviate. While Gilroy was out to lunch with his fellow team members, NASA called inquiring about the acronym for their experiment. They simply said, “What is the acronym for your experiment?” Gilroy reached for a napkin on the cluttered diner table just past the ketchup bottle and coffee mug.

“Literally on the back of a napkin, we’re writing down words associated with our experiment,” Gilroy said.

As they wrote down various phrases, an acronym began to take shape.  The experiment was a test of Arabidopsis, a strain of plant, and they would then transcribe the data from space.

A “test of Arabidopsis space transcription.” Maybe the words truly spoke to them, or maybe it was the crispy piece of bread that clued them in, but an acronym was revealed all the same. T.O.A.S.T. or Test Of Arabidopsis Space Transcription. It was the perfect name for their experiment.

Now that they had an acronym, the team could truly begin the preparation for their space launch.

A great deal of effort goes into just one space launch when the crew heads to Kennedy Space Center. Gilroy begins to retell the journey of a simple space flight from the beginning.

The hardest part of space research: “There’s a lot of technology involved and a lot of stuff you need to know,” said Gilroy. “you have to know a lot of terminology. We’re down there and we’re soaking it all up.”

It starts with the initial planning. This experiment must be flawless. Space launches are extremely expensive and there are mass amounts of technology involved. If there is even one oversight, millions of dollars could be lost. Equipment could be destroyed.

In a perfect world, all science would be error free. The verification tests are supposed to prevent these errors.

In a perfect world, all science would be error free.

“That’s a tricky thing because that’s not the way that science operates. Experiments always go wrong,” said Gilroy.

One example Gilroy mentioned was a private space company called Orbital Sciences.

Gilroy and his lab have launched with a private space company called “Space X.” They were looking into launching with Orbital Sciences as well. Until the inevitable happened. Due to faulty science, a rocket blew up on the Launchpad.

After the destruction of their Launchpad, it will take years for Orbital Sciences to re-enter the space game. Gilroy said, “Every single time there is a successful launch it is pretty amazing.”

Once verification tests have been completed and the team is 100% sure their experiment will work without error, they run the final assessment. The last check mark is a high pressure, full run through. The crew does everything exactly as they would for a regular launch, expect actually launch the rocket. If even one detail goes wrong, they do not launch.

Finally, the day of the actual launch comes. The equivalent of Christmas day for many of these Botanists. Gilroy and his fellow researchers stay in Cocoa Beach, which is near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“You can see Kennedy Space center. Even if you’re in Cocoa Beach and there’s a launch it’s the same phenomenon. There’s these huge lights and then two minutes later the sound rolls across you,” Gilroy said as he described watching a space launch from the distance. People gather from all over on Cocoa Beach to watch the launches.

It was even more amazing for Gilroy when his experiment was on the rocket.

The plants sit snug inside the spacecraft. According to Gilroy’s associate researcher Dr. Sarah Swanson, also a professor of Botany at UW-Madison, the plants are kept in small black containers called bricks. These containers are about the size of two bricks stacked on top of each other.

Inside each of these “bricks” are six smaller containers, called petri dishes. Every petri dish holds 64 seeds. “Plants would not be able to survive all the force of a launch,” says Swanson. So they are sent up as seeds and grow in space.

It is pretty well-known, however, that plants require sunlight, which isn’t found in a small box. Plants use sunlight to produce glucose, or sugar, which is used for energy. To allow the plants to grow without sunlight, the team puts glucose in the dishes before the launch.

Once the plants return to earth, the team gathers them. Dr. Won-Gyu Choi, an assistant scientist in the lab, physically lays the small plants out and measures them to determine anti-gravity’s affect. They are then sent to another lab for further genetic analysis.

There are launches more regularly than many people think. “Space flight is a true industry,” says Gilroy. As the rocket launches into space, Gilroy proudly watches it disappear into the sky.

Even as the rocket launches, however, Gilroy has his mind on the future. What is next? The team is looking a designing a device to grow plants on the poles of the earth, such as the north and south pole.

There is an area that is unaffected by earth’s strong magnetic fields there. Even in space, earth’s magnetic fields still play a role. This provides another unique environment to grow plants in.

Gilroy first became interested in botany while studying at Cambridge. His time there is what led up to these space experiments.

“It just turned out that plant biologists were absolutely awesome and they just got across why what they were doing was just super interesting,” said Gilroy.

He stressed that if someone truly loves what they are doing, they will genuinely be excited about it. Gilroy is truly excited about plants and everything about them.

Not surprisingly, Gilroy’s favorite hobby outside of research is gardening. “That might be the botanist disease,” said Gilroy. He also claims that gardening is deeply encoded within his genes because he is British.

Year after year Gilroy and the whole team stay incredibly excited about his research. “If you are not excited about it you shouldn’t be doing it,” said Gilroy, “because it’s pretty damn awesome.”

Feature photo courtesy of David Tenenbaum.

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